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Relax! Your Baby Will Thank You!

Part 2 of a 2-part series.

Effects of Traumatic Events continued...

High-risk pregnancy expert Andrei Rebarber, MD, agrees. "It's an interesting phenomenon, but admittedly, we don't have great markers from what we know thus far," says Rebarber, an associate professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

That said, when stress does a play a role, Rebarber believes it's most likely long-term chronic anxiety and tension that is of most concern.

"The basic idea here is that the maternal response to chronic stress compromises various hormones during pregnancy, including causing higher levels of CRH [corticotropin releasing hormone], in conjunction with cortisol and other stress hormones, to cross the placenta," says Rebarber.

It is this cascade of events, he says, that appears to affect premature labor and birth, possibly affecting the growth rate of the baby.

Pregnancy and Acute Stress: Important Links

While most experts agree that any truly detrimental effects of stress are likely to be the result of long-term or chronic stress, what about those life-changing events that happen suddenly?

Hobel says it's not something most women have to worry about.

"No matter how severe, if it's just one episode, most women can handle it, particularly if they have a good support system, with family members, spouses, and friends helping them through the trying event," says Hobel.

And that's precisely what doctors in New York City learned in the days and weeks following the events of Sept. 11. While they fully expected the stress of that day to increase rates of premature birth, surprisingly, says Young, this was not the case.

Rebarber says that some of the Sept. 11 data showed an increase in women starting labor early, but that early delivery had not necessarily increased.

Hobel believes that may be because the effects of a sudden episode of a stressful event are far more likely to cause problems when experienced early rather than late in the pregnancy.

That is precisely what researchers at the University of California at Irvine documented following the 1994 northern California earthquake. In this instance, women who were in their first three months of pregnancy when the quake hit were far more likely to deliver prematurely than women who were in their third trimester when the disaster occurred.

"The definition of major stressors includes things like loss of another child or a parent -- something personally profound and traumatic," says Hobel.

Pregnant and Stressed? How to Tell

While studies are teaching us some of the deleterious effects of stress, they're also helping to validate that stress reduction can offer both mother and baby important benefits.

The stumbling block, say doctors, is that many women are not aware of just how stressed they are or the simple ways they can control it.

"When we think of stress we tend to think of the big, easy-to-identify events, or even the annoying factors we encounter every day. What we don't realize is that how we care for ourselves on a daily basis holds the real key to stress control," says Hobel.

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